Imagine you’re Donald Westlake in 1961/1962. You’re a struggling writer, churning our four or five novels a year under a variety of names and across a number of genres. Then one day you finish a book named THE HUNTER under the pseudonym Richard Stark. A book about a ruthless, super thief named Parker who finds himself up against a criminal outfit known as The Outfit. Do you instantly know that this is the one? That this is the character, and this is the book even, which would give you a lasting legacy? Could you possibly realise that this short, brutal novel would have numerous sequels, that there’d be Hollywood adaptations, countless imitations, and that when twenty-five years later you get chance to write a prestigious Oscar-bait movie, the English director would actually ask whether they could credit it to Richard Stark rather than Donald Westlake?
Was there any way he could possibly have conceived of such a thing?
To put it into further context: in the same year THE HUNTER came out, Westlake also published novels (under a variety of pseudonyms) called 361; THE SIN DRIFTER; STRANGE AFFAIR; and SIN HELLCAT. Surely then, there wasn’t any way to know? Surely there was no way to realise that this book was a moment of grand triumph?
Well, given that he apparently killed off Parker in his first draft and had to be talked into leaving him alive by his editor, clearly he didn’t realise. But when he looked back at his life and his career, this was undoubtedly the turning point, not just one book amongst many but a key book for him and for American crime fiction itself.
Without a doubt it’s a triumph. It’s over fifty years old and it still feels modern, it still has a vibrancy. You can see exactly why it had such an effect and why people were crying out for sequels. It’s tense, smart, darkly funny and terrifically entertaining. What I really noticed on this re-read was how grounded it is, how real it all feels. There’s no way I can check, of course, but this seems like a novel that has a great sense of living geography. The prose is never less than beautifully economical and yet even though they’re quick pencil sketches, the streets he visits and the places he goes seem to have a verisimilitude. It reads like a travel guide to the less salubrious parts of New York. So that, if you wanted to in 1962, you could have walked the very same streets, gone to the same cab-stands and hidden in the same scrublands as Parker.
In Parker himself we may have the ultimate anti-hero: one who follows his own rules, who always takes his own path. It isn’t just that he’s a thief and a law-breaker – there’s barely a character we meet here who isn’t on the wrong side of the law – it’s the uncompromising efficiency with which he operates. It means that in a world of criminals, Parker is always the hardest, nastiest bastard who walks into a room.
Often the opening books of series are strange in hindsight, as the central character we’ve got to know so well isn’t quite there yet. However, Westlake/Stark seems to have a handle on Parker almost immediately – the professional, ruthless bastard who does what he has to do without compromise. Except not quite. Whereas in later books it’s all about the robbery at hand and Parker’s attempts to save it or save his neck or both, here it’s personal – it’s about vengeance. It’s almost as if Westlake created this character and instantly saw what he’d have to do this man to take him out of his comfort zone, to push the envelope of the character. Then, rather than wait until later to shuffle things up a little, he made that adventure the opening salvo. This book therefore, much like Parker himself, isn’t one to play by any arbitrary rules.
A truly impressive, breathlessly exciting, tersely but beautifully written, five star novel.
My own thriller, EDEN ST. MICHEL is out next week. You can pre-order your copy here!